Some thoughts on the Gonski "2.0" report

The second Gonski Review was publicly released this week to a storm of controversy and diversity of opinions among educators, policy wonks and researchers. 

The panel had a hard task. It was asked to focus on the school and classroom factors that can make the biggest, sustained difference to educational achievement, while ignoring the many, meaty structural issues such as funding allocations, residualisation, federalism and system coherence, which influence schooling outcomes. These had been explored in the earlier review chaired by David Gonski (and in my own work).   Despite these limitations, the panel did a pretty good job, outlining a vision of where Australian schooling should be heading (spoiler: a student-centred school system which values and supports educators) and some of the tools and changes needed to get there.

I was pleased to read the priority reforms put forward in the Mitchell Institute submission were endorsed as recommendations in Gonski2.0. And I was particularly enthused to see learning growth over time, personalised learning, and student agency plus additional time and evidence-based tools to support teachers and principals in their vital work as educators and instructional leaders at the centre of the report.

Of course, many of the key recommendations put forward are already happening in schools around Australia, including schools I've had the pleasure of working with over the years. (Check out Templestowe College, Rooty Hill High School and Marlborough Primary). But such approaches are not systematically supported or encouraged by current policy, accountability and regulatory frameworks, nor are they made easy for already over-stretched schools or teachers.

One of the biggest obstacles - recognised in this report - is the absence of timely, fine-grain and useable data at classroom level on teaching impact, and of tools to put such insights into practice in a way that is tailored to individuals and their different contexts.  Such data is in many ways the missing link, connecting teaching with learning in real time.  

Pivot, the organisation I've just joined, works with schools and systems to gain these vital insights into teaching effectiveness using student perception data and peer feedback, and uses this to provide confidential reports and curated resource packs to teachers, and aggregated reports to school leaders, on their greatest strengths and development areas.  These insights and tools are keys to unlock greater effectiveness and learning growth.

Student and peer feedback data can rightly take emphasis away from NAPLAN, which has been misused and conflated in both purpose and importance, with perverse effects at the individual, school and system levels. NAPLAN should be put back into perspective - a nationally-comparable point-in-time assessment of a few essential learning areas, to be used alongside other data sets and most importantly, formative assessments, to guide decisions on programs and resource allocation.

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NAPLAN results don’t tell the full story

"The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results released on Wednesday show Australian students are making few gains in literacy and numeracy. National average performance scores in grades 3, 5, 7, and 9 have barely shifted since the standardised tests began almost ten years ago.
But averages don’t tell the full story. Diving into the details is essential to understand what is going on in Australian education."

Read more in my piece in The Conversation. Extra background available in my previous blog posts and other articles.

"The most important discussion of the last 40 years for Australian schools"

Flat or falling results in the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests, persistent gaps in resources and school completion rates, and worryingly-high student disengagement indicate new approaches are needed in education policy.

Australia's federalism system of government may seem abstract or even irrelevant to efforts to improve student learning and outcomes.  But the messy arrangement of government responsibilities for school funding, policy, program delivery, regulation, evaluation and accountability directly affects every school in the country and limits their capacity to help students achieve their full potential. A smarter alignment of these responsibilities among governments would mean that precious funding and time would be better-targeted to where needs are greatest, reducing the growing gap in resources and outcomes. It would make it easier for schools and school systems to develop, implement and evaluate cohesive programs tailored to the needs of their students, and to collaborate with other schools, with families and with agencies working in health and welfare. Finally, it would make it easier for educators and policy makers around the country to understand their impact and to learn from each other in a cycle of continuous improvement.

Today the Melbourne School of Government launched a new report I prepared for them called Schooling Federalism: Evaluating the Options for Reform.  This report assesses the four reform options proposed by the Prime Minister's Department's federalism taskforce in their leaked Green Paper and Discussion Paper late June.

These four options received scant media attention and analysis. The bulk of the commentary focused on Option 4 and its footnote. Under this Option, the Commonwealth government would have provided all school funding (and potentially charged fees for public school education, which I discuss here) while the states would have done almost everything else including provision of public schools and regulation for all schools. This would have been disastrous for policy effectiveness, efficiency, fairness and accountability. It was also extremely unlikely to be pursued. 

The absence of scrutiny of the other three options was worrying. In this report I measure each of the reform proposals against the six criteria put forward by the federalism taskforce and also consider their political feasibility and desirability.

Option 1 (full state responsibility for education) was the clear winner, but its success is dependent upon the states receiving revenue increase commensurate with increased funding responsibilities. Option 3 (greatly reduced Commonwealth involvement) offers similar potential to improve learning outcomes and equity, although to a lesser degree. Under all four options, ACARA, the national curriculum, NAPLAN and MySchool would be retained, but with the Commonwealth taking a back seat and instead following the states' leadership and supporting their initiatives when in the national interest.

Complementing the online launch of the report was a national radio interview on RN Sunday Extra. Host Jonathan Green and I explored some of the complexities and historical background in what Dale Pearce, Principal of Bendigo Senior Secondary College and Board member of Victoria's Curriculum and Assessment Authority, described as "the most important discussion of the last 40 years for Australian schools."

Of course, what works in one policy domain is not necessarily appropriate for others. For those interested in vocational education and training and the best intergovernmental arrangements for this important area, check out the valuable work of Peter Noonan and other colleagues at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy.

Does NAPLAN need an overhaul?

Since 2008, Australia has had a national assessment program for literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN), providing objective, nationally-comparative 'point in time' data to governments, schools, parents and the public on how students and schools are tracking on these essential learning foundations.

It replaced standardised literacy and numeracy tests at the state level that had been in place for almost 20 years but were difficult to compare and were not available to the public or external researchers.

NAPLAN is not an authoritative, holistic assessment of the capacity or quality of a student, teacher or school. Nor is it a high stakes test - students are not penalised for poor performance and NAPLAN results do not effect the remuneration of individual teachers.

NAPLAN is a diagnostic tool to assist school leaders and policy makers deciding how to allocate resources and tailor programs and strategies to maximise learning for their students. It also provides objective "snapshot" data to parents and teachers on how individual students are tracking, and an extra piece of information - objective data - to assist them deciding which school to send their kids, rather than relying solely on visits, advertising materials, at times sensationalist media and hearsay.

While NAPLAN's objectives are very worthy, misconceptions over the test and an over-emphasis on it by a small minority of parents and schools has raised serious concerns.  I joined Senator Penny Wright on ABC television's News Breakfast program on 28 March to discuss the Senate Inquiry into these concerns. Here's the segment and the report.  I also discussed whether MySchool be abolished on ABC's Radio National on March 7.